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VOL. 43 | NO. 49 | Friday, December 6, 2019

Castoffs becoming heroes for Titans

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Titans receiver Kalif Raymond, who has had stops with the Broncos, Jets and Giants since being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2016, snags his first NFL touchdown, a 40-yarder at Indianapolis on Sunday.

NFL stands for Not For Long, the old adage states with regard to the average length of a player’s career.

Football fame can certainly be fleeting, and few opportunities arise for marginal players to make their mark.

Nowhere has that been more evident than with the Tennessee Titans during the past several weeks. The team suddenly surged into contention, thanks in part to unexpected and unheralded guys, those who might or might not be on the roster from week to week.

Two weeks ago it was Josh Kalu, an undrafted and practice squad player from Nebraska, who blocked a potential game-tying field goal in his seventh NFL game to save a Tennessee win against Kansas City.

This week it was receiver Kalif Raymond and cornerback Tye Smith, each with fourth quarter touchdowns in Tennessee’s 31-17 victory against Indianapolis.

Neither Raymond nor Smith came to the NFL with much of a pedigree. Both players have seen more cuts than an emergency room doctor.

Raymond was initially signed as an undrafted rookie back in 2016 by the Denver Broncos after playing his college football at Holy Cross, a Football Championship Series – formerly known as Division I-AA – school with four postseason games in 135 years of play.

Since signing with the Broncos, Raymond has found himself the property of the Jets, the Giants (twice) and the Titans (twice), having spent time on Tennessee’s practice squad this year.

He was the sensation of this year’s training camp and made the initial 53-man roster, though he was cut again and re-signed to the practice squad.

He was finally promoted back to the roster Oct. 26 and had five total receptions before he hauled in a clinching 40-yard touchdown pass from Tannehill.

For Raymond, just like Kalu a couple of weeks ago, it was his turn to make something good happen for a Titans team in which role players are expected to produce.

“I knew it was an opportunity to make a play,” Raymond says of his first NFL touchdown. “We talked about it all week that when your time comes, be ready, be prepared, and I think I was as prepared as possible to go out and make a play.”

On the other side of the ball, Smith, who hails from Towson – another FCS school – likely wouldn’t have been active had it not been for LeShaun Sims’ ankle injury. Instead, he went from a guy who has been active for only four games prior all season (including being cut from the roster for a week) to making two vital plays Sunday.

First, Smith scooped a field goal blocked by Dane Cruikshank and returned it 63 yards for a touchdown. Then, he ripped the ball away from the Colts’ Ross Travis in the red zone, where the Titans recovered and ran out the clock.

For Smith, who played 15 games in 2017 before spending last year on injured reserve, it was a long-anticipated moment in the sun.

“It’s great. It feels humbling. All glory to God,” says Smith, who was a fifth-round pick of the Seahawks in 2015 before bouncing to the Redskins practice squad and then Tennessee.

“And me just not giving up and keeping faith, and my teammates keeping faith in me. And me just improving throughout practice led me to where I am today. The coaches trusted me enough to put me out there and let me go play. It was my first game at corner.”

Who knows who will be called upon next by the Titans in a key situation with the game hanging in the balance? But whoever it is, coach Mike Vrabel expects that player to produce.

“Everybody that we have on the roster that Jon (Robinson) and I evaluate and talk about and want to bring up or bring in here, they’re expected to understand the game plan and have a role in it,” Vrabel says. “And then we decide who is going to be the 46 guys that we take out there based on versatility and injuries and everything.

“Kalif is one of those guys who has taken advantage of every opportunity he has gotten. Tye has been up a couple of games, been off the roster, been back on. He made a big play.”

And those big plays from unheralded guys don’t go unnoticed by the team’s stars.

“You never know when your number is going to be called. I tell you we have a special group, a special locker room. A guy like Kalif Raymond makes a play. It’s a special team.

“Tye is so unselfish,” cornerback Logan Ryan says. “He’s a great teammate. He really cares and he does whatever you ask him to do in practice.

“He’s been cut from the team and brought back. He plays on special teams. He plays gunner and plays all the special teams.

“People talk about me, and Malcolm Butler, Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro, but people don’t know about these other guys. They’re making plays and that’s what makes this group special because those guys all believe, and they play well when the get the opportunity.”

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